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Throwing A Digital Shadow

I need to buy a new phone this week.

(Cue groaning that “he’s crapping on about mobile phones again”)

My Nokia 7610 is on the way out — the memory card keeps corrupting, functions are dropping out, the thing refuses to go on the web and in general it’s never worked as well as I wanted it to. So it’s time to exercise the free upgrade option at Vodafone. I’m looking at the Nokia N80 or the Nokia 6280, which my daughter is using right now. One of the two can apparently take a plug-in keyboard — I think it’s the N80, which means that’ll be the phone I get. Both of them are videocall-capable, which is important because my daughter wants to be able to videocall me when I’m on the road.

(EDIT: I ended up ordering the N73 over the phone — Vodafone stopped carrying the N80 because of abysmal battery life.)

It’s two years since I’ve been seriously interested in what a phone can do. In that time, the whole “moblogging” thing has gone a little cold, due mostly to punitive mobile communications costs in much of the world and limited, cranky functionality. This blog is run on WordPress, and the built-in post-by-mail option has stubbornly refused to work for me. And my old Treo 600 (which also needs replacing next year) is now refusing to connect to the blog’s Write Post screen. That’s why this place goes quiet when I’m away. I don’t have a laptop, and my current set-up can only post here via Flickr, which inserts weird formatting into the posts.

So when I get a new phone, I want to look again at how it can interact with the internet.

Which leads me to the notion of informational presence.

With a working moblogging system, there are all kinds of ways to translate physical presence into informational presence. A way to cast my shadow on to the net.

A glogging — “cyborglogging” — solution could have my phone automatically taking shots while I’m travelling and uploading them. You could see where I am in 15- or 30-minute spaces, perhaps. In theory, I could drop Quicktime-playable voice messages on the site whenever I had time to record them on the phone and MMS or email them off. Same with phone video — vlogging. It also seems likely that my GPS-logged physical presence could be placed on the site.

Or I could set up a module-powered site, like Protopage, and have it call RSS feeds from web services. So there’d be a separate page that acted as a snapshot of my presence, right up to running the weather report for the town I’m in.

A live record/recording on the web of where you are and what you’re doing. A collection of the information stream trailing behind me as I move through the world. To the point where someone could check your Protopage or whatever and see where you are, where you’ve been, what the weather was and is like and is going to be, and possibly even text you to let you know it’s going to rain in an hour, right off the page with an Ipipi function.

This partially mirrors some of the current thinking about “blogjects” and the like — wired objects that blog their presence and status. Or, to butcher some writing of Sterling’s, using a gizmo to create spimelike action.

That’s the techie standpoint. The social standpoint is something else. Either you’re stalking yourself, ha ha, or you’re making it disturbingly easy for someone else to stalk you. My girlfriend, navigating through the countryside with a TomTom GPS device, opined that someone with deep unauthorised access to the TomTom system would know when your home is unoccupied and vulnerable to burglary. I think about it every time I choose to let people on the net know I’m travelling. I’m not sure how smart it is to have a page that not only shows where I am, but where I’m not. Services like Dodgeball or the UK equivalent seem to me, on a cynical level, to invite personal disaster.

Look through any list of WordPress plug-ins and you’ll find a hundred things that seemed like a good idea at the time to the coders but are in fact utterly useless. The equivalent of chindogu — “unuseless” inventions that do actually do something, but they’re something you’d never actually want to do, like converting all the dates on your website to Star Trek stardates.  I suspect that a lot of the tools for mobile informational presence are much the same thing.   You don’t actually need to know that I’m taking a piss in a public toilet in West Stow, and I’m unlikely to choose to pass on that little bit of information.

(Setting up a Protopage in advance of visiting an area, filled with informational feeds about that area, is, however, a good idea, and with reliable phone-web access, I’ll be trying it soon.)

Ultimately, how much information do I need to broadcast?  How many footprints do I need to leave on the net?  And also: in an age where privacy is becoming an important political issue once more, how much do I choose to give up just to perform experiments of doubtful interest and practicality?  Niki already has to drop to 29mph in the car on her way home from her mother’s in order to avoid being photographed by strangers.  And her mother is fearing the insertion of a chip in her rubbish bin to measure how much waste she’s throwing away, and wondering if she’s going to have to start storing garbage in the house to avoid being charged for tossing broken objects and wine bottles she can’t get to a glass bank.

(Which would ordinarily lead me into a rant about free markets gone mad, and an idiot I saw on a message board a few years ago angrily declaiming that he wanted hospitals to “compete for his business.”  Wait until you have a cardiac in the street, you stupid fuck.  Get a good look at what rampant competition does to a health service then.  In a free market, a business has the right to refuse service.  But I don’t have time for that rant today.)

I need moblogging tools because I want to be able to produce and publish content from the street.  The question now, as I wonder what new tools are available for my incoming shiny new phone is: what constitutes content?  The difference between me and a blogject is that it doesn’t know it’s squirting useless crap on to the web.  The difference between me and a glogger is that a glogger doesn’t care that they’re squirting useless crap on to the web — or, at least, has set the bar low enough for the term “content” that automatically photoblogging themselves taking a piss qualifies as something worth expressing through a webpage on its way to storage.

A lot of you have commented in email that this site now seems awfully pared down compared to the previous iteration.  I mean, I haven’t finished rebuilding it yet.  But there needs to be a conscious difference between being able to just cover it in stuff, and actually choosing where to focus your attention and mine where it’ll do the most good.

Published in brainjuice


  1. Pix Pix

    I recommend the wp-cron plugin.

    If you upload and activate the wp-cron and wp-cron-mail bits of it then it should make WordPress actually check the POP account and post things from it.

  2. Interesting … so many possibilities. I feel so behind the curve when I read about these sorts of things. Phones that allow you to stay in touch with the world and spread information on such a broad and multimedia scale … I feel damn near overwhelmed … I catch up a little bit and then find out that I caught up to 2 years ago instead of today. By the time I catch up to this mo-blogging stuff there will be phone traits.

  3. I just got an N80 last month – the battery life isn’t fantastic, granted, but it’s a boss phone with all the tricks…the N73 looks to be no poor substitute, though.

    Have you discovered Mobical, BTW? All the functionality of Google Calendar (but more secure from snoopage), plus the ability to synchronise your schedule between the website and the phone at the same time as backing up your phone contacts, notes and messages. Worth a poke if you’re as disorganised a bugger as myself.

    And on that note, thanks for the tipoff on Protopage; I can see that being pretty useful too.

    And finally, I rather like the pared-down look around these parts. I’ve been looking for a 3-column theme that doesn’t suck, and I may have have a closer look at the viklund original that you’ve built this from. Good luck with the moblogging, too – if you find any good solutions, I hope you’ll share!

  4. Mr. Ellis, i´ve been trying to find your email, but there´s none to be found (or i´m in serious need of new glasses), so i´m using your comments board to do what i want ;)
    Anyway, i wanted to send you an old link i stored in my bookmarks and happened to stumble upon in a recent Bookmark Cleaning Day. Its about the myths created by the homeless children of Miami and exchanged in the shelters, complete with banshes, angels and satan (a little voice keept screaming WARREN ELLIS in my ear during the whole reading ;)).

    So, here is the link, hope you like it

  5. RMC RMC

    I still think you should consider stitching your fiction into this somehow– I’m not sufficiently tech-minded to make more than a vague suggestion but at least one way of guarenteeing a certain standard of content would be to create data shadows of characters you are currently writing for on-going series. Say you have a friend in L.A with appropriate phone and nothing to do on the weekend. You propose that you will do something they like if they spend their Saturday simulating a Michael Jones datashadow which co-relates with the current story arc or single issue.

  6. I’ve recently replaced my own phone/PDA with a work-mandated Blackberry. It’s an interesting device, because it’s basically an appliance; my toaster makes toast, my TV displays episodes of Friends 24/7, and my BB buzzes when I get an e-mail.

    Which makes me think sadly about all the interesting things I could have done with my previous P910i but never got round to because they were complicated and difficult and I couldn’t be arsed.

    The fanciest thing I ever did with it was take photos every 5 minutes on a day trip to Holland so I could put them on the web for a friend who has always wanted to go there. And I could have done that easier if I’d just remembered to bring my digital camera and then spent 10 minutes uploading to Flickr when I got home.

  7. I’d say that glogging is good at certain times – times when you don’t mind people knowing where you are (such as when they’ll know anyway), and you can show something interesting through a frequent photoing of what you’re doing.

    Like if you’re going to a convention, something that takes a photo every so often could be cool, showing how your time at convention went, and various of the faces that stood in front of you.

  8. […] Ellis on Mobile Society (tags: tech) […]

  9. i don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the n73. what little time i’ve spent with one impressed me. the n73 actually may help you to moblog. its camera application has a built in uploader, which is designed to work with flickr. everytime you take a picture, you can upload it with one click. then you can use flickr’s “blog this” functionality to automatically post your photo to your site. the uploader might be able to be hacked in order to work with other services or even something more wordpress specific (though i don’t know of anything for WP offhand). flickr is also really pushing the envelope with it’s new geotagging options, but i don’t know how deeply that’s integrated into the n73 client. it will be interesting to find out. i think geotagging photos from a phone makes things very interesting. they give each picture a time and place. enough of these not from one person, but a whole community and you start to build interesting data sets.

  10. […] Throwing a Digital Shadow I’m not sure how smart it is to have a page that not only shows where I am, but where I’m not. (tags: privacy surveillance culture identity) […]

  11. i come here for the longwinded verbal stuff. i don’t care that you’re visiting thatched cottages or that you’re taking a piss somewhere that has now been gps tagged. i just want to read what’s going on in your brain.

    that’s what i’ve always liked about dph/ – the moments when you go ‘this is how creativity works’ and write about it, or better yet, put it into action. i was introduced to dph by the friday picture posts: “the internet is made of people. show it your face” or somesuch. no-one else tends to made me think about the web, or technology, or the intersections between tech and culture in that way.

  12. Michael Aubert Michael Aubert

    Well, the good news is that you also chose a phone with a secured version of the Symbian operating system.

    The bad news is that it makes development of applications more expensive so less of them will be available in general although I don’t expect this to be a problem with what you’re trying to do.

    The Sony-Ericsson phones are usually better at the kind of connectivity you’re looking for. You may want to look at the M800 series next year.

    So what if this looks like a shameless plug from a Symbian employee. That’s exactly what I used to be.

    Anyway, enjoy your new phone. Bring us some good pictures. Just no pierced cocks on front page anymore, OK ? It just hurts a bit deeper every time.

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